NWU partners with IAEA to boost nutrition in Africa

28th March 2024

By: Rebecca Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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South Africa’s North-West University (NWU) has become the lead host institution for Anglophone African countries in a pan-African initiative launched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), intended to build capacity across the continent for scientific research into micronutrients. Micronutrients, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A, are essential for human health, and particularly important for children and pregnant women. (Morocco is the lead host country for the programme for Francophone countries.)

“Micronutrient deficiencies are highly prevalent in Africa and are some of the major factors associated with growth retardation, morbidity, mortality, slow psychomotor development, and poor immune function in children,” highlighted NWU Centre for Excellence in Nutrition's Professor Linda Malan. “Micronutrient deficiencies also affect women of reproductive age, with significant adverse effects on the nutritional status and health of their offspring in early life, as well as limiting their development and human potential. For example, 40% of all women of reproductive age in Africa suffer from anaemia, about half of which is due to iron deficiency. Children’s diets in Africa are predominantly plant-based, which often provides insufficient or poorly absorbable micronutrients, such as iron and zinc.”

Nuclear technology actually has a very important role in nutrition science, especially regarding diagnosis. Nuclear techniques can be used to provide markers for micronutrients in the human body, so precisely identifying the causes of their poor absorption in individuals. Stable isotopes are ideal for this role. These are the non-radioactive isotopes of radioactive elements.

The IAEA programme involves the creation of a two-year MSc in Nutrition with Nuclear Techniques programme. This will be hosted by universities across the continent. Certain aspects of the MSc programme will be standard across all countries, while other aspects will be tailored to the specific requirements of the country concerned. Following South Africa and Morocco, the next African countries to implement the initiative will be Ghana, Senegal and Zambia. It is proposed to roll the programme out across a total of 42 African countries. 

“[T]here is limited technical expertise and laboratory capacity in Africa to assess the bioavailability of micronutrients from foods and how this relates to micronutrient status in vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant and lactating women,” she pointed out. “The project will help participating African member states build capacity to design and evaluate interventions to address micronutrient deficiencies for better health and economic development.”

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter




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